Asian Carp & the Great Lakes

This week, the Environment Report is taking an in-depth look at the connections between cancer and the environment. When somebody gets cancer, one of the first questions is usually "why?" Does this kind of cancer run in my family? Was it something in the water, or in the air around me? Did I get exposed to something? What would you do, or where would you go to answer these questions?

Asian Carp Invasion

The Environment Report has been covering the introduction of the Asian Carp species since January of 2000, when catfish farms in the south were importing them to control pests. The fish have since spread throughout the Mississippi River system. Millions of dollars of taxpayer money has been spent to try to keep these foreign species from swimming into the Great Lakes. Some scientists say their presence in the Great Lakes would be an "ecological disaster." Today, evidence of an Asian Carp species was found above an electric barrier designed to prevent their movement into the Great Lakes.

Cancer and Environment: Searching for Answers

This week, the Environment Report is taking an in-depth look at the connections between cancer and the environment. When somebody gets cancer, one of the first questions is usually "why?" Does this kind of cancer run in my family? Was it something in the water, or in the air around me? Did I get exposed to something? What would you do, or where would you go to answer these questions?

Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future

A five-part series from the Environment Report on the future of coal in this country. Lester Graham, Shawn Allee, and Matt Sepic break down a debate taking place over the public airwaves and in the public policy arena. Can coal be a viable option in the new green economy? Support for this series comes from the Joyce Foundation.

Dioxin Delays

In this series, The Environment Report's Shawn Allee investigates Dow Chemical and dioxin contamination in mid-Michigan. Central Michigan has lived with toxic dioxin pollution in two major rivers and Saginaw Bay for decades. Shawn looks at who's been affected, why it's taken so long to clean up, how the science behind dioxin has played into this, and what the cleanup means for the rest of the country.

Green Burial

A series of reports about efforts to make the burial process more environmentally friendly.


The Environment Report has been following Matt and Kelly Grocoff in their effort to make their Ann Arbor home the oldest net-zero house in America. That means in a year the home will produce as much energy or more than it uses. Matt wanted to show that making an older home an energy efficient showcase made more sense than building new.

Is Fire Safety Putting Us at Risk?

You have flame retardant chemicals in your body. Scientists are finding these chemicals, called PBDEs, in newborn babies, and the breast milk those babies drink. We Americans have the highest levels of anyone in the world. We're exposed to these chemicals every day. They're in our couches, our TVs, our cars, our office chairs, the padding beneath our carpets, and the dust in our homes. They're building up in pets, wild animals and fish. They're even in some of the foods we eat. Doctors and public health experts are worried because hundreds of peer-reviewed studies are suggesting links to neurological and developmental defects, and fertility and reproductive problems.

Life on the Kalamazoo River

It’s been more than a year since a pipeline owned by Canadian company Enbridge Energy ruptured, spilling more than 843,000 gallons of tar sands oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. In this three part series, we explore what life is like now for people who live near the river, what the spill might mean for the health of wildlife and the ecosystem, and the status of lawsuits and claims filed against Enbridge.

Pollution in the Heartland

Pollution in the Heartland looks at the impact of farming practices on our water supply and what some people are doing about it.

Swimming Upstream

A special Environment Report series on fish and the fishing industry in Michigan. Are our fish safe to eat, what can they tell us about the health of our lakes and rivers, and what's the future of commercial fishing in the Great Lakes? Reporter Dustin Dwyer traveled around the state and brings us these seven stories. Support for coverage of Great Lakes fishery issues comes from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust .

Tar Sands Oil

We've been reporting on tar sands oil and the oil spill cleanup throughout the year. Here are our stories:

The Collapse of the Salmon Economy

The Great Lakes are changing so fast that the agencies which manage fishing cannot keep up with the changes. Some types of fish populations are collapsing and others are thriving… at least for now. In a project between The Environment Report and Michigan Watch, Lester Graham has a series of reports on what’s happening and why.

Your Choice; Your Planet

Your Choice; Your Planet is a yearlong series of reports on how the consumer choices we all make affect the environment. Many environmental stories look at government regulations and industry failures, but the greater impact on the environment is determined by the choices that we make every day. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium plans to go far beyond the question of 'Paper or plastic?' The series will look at our attitudes about buying, consumer confusion, misleading marketing, and short-term thinking versus long-term effects when it comes to purchasing food, clothes, services and big ticket items. Being an environmentally friendly consumer is not always easy. Your Choice; Your Planet stories help you make better informed decisions.

Investing in Asian Carp (Part 5)

  • Mayor Tom Thompson and Lu Xu Wu, CEO of Wuhan Hui Chang Real Estate (speaking through an interpreter). Wuhan Hui Chang is a part investor in American Heartland Fish Products LLC., based in Grafton, IL. (Photo by Adam Allington)

As the nation’s civic leaders search for a permanent solution to keep invasive Asian carp from spreading, other parts of the country are betting on the carp’s future.  Across the Mississippi Valley, fishermen and exporters are teaming up to develop the market for carp, and carp products.  In the final episode of our series on Asian carp, Adam Allington reports how some people hope that selling carp might be the best method for checking their expansion:

When the French explorer Père Marquette traveled down the Illinois River in 1673, his journal tells of encounters with “monstrous fish” so large they nearly overturned his canoe.   

In all likelihood the fish Marquette was talking about were channel catfish, but nearly 340 years later fisherman Josh Havens says it’s bighead carp… and silver carp which now harass boaters on the Illinois (silver carp are the jumpers).

“Oh everybody hates ‘em, except for people that shoot ‘em and stuff like that.  I hate ‘em when I’m trying to tube with my kids, but then when we’re trying to shoot ‘em I like them.  So it’s a love-hate thing.”

Bow-fishing for jumping carp is fun, but the sheer volume of carp is crowding out native fish, so much in fact that in parts of the river 8 out of every 10 fish is an Asian carp.

A fact which some Illinois officials believe could be an asset.

“We should be thinking about these invasive species as opportunities for us to focus on economic development.”

Marc Miller is the Director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.  Speaking to residents in the tiny river town of Grafton Illinois, Miller says he’s bullish on carp in part because of companies like Grafton’s American Heartland Fish Products.

“I mean who else can take lemons and turn them into lemonade, like providing an opportunity for 39 jobs here in this community, that’s what we’re doing with the Asian carp.”

Earlier this summer, a group of Chinese investors announced a partnership with American Heartland Fish to ship 35 million pounds of carp to China over the next three years.

The Illinois Department of Commerce kicked in 2 million dollars to help build the processing plant…a down payment which Grafton Mayor Tom Thompson says is money well spent.

“It’s going to produce jobs, it’s going to revive our local fishing industry and it’s a very important catalyst in trying to solve the environmental problem of carp in the river.”

Carp are considered too boney for American tastes.  But they’re wildly popular in China, where pollution has made many fish unsafe to eat.  The fish caught here are sold as “upper Mississippi wild-caught” carp, with “so much energy they can jump.”

Still others say the Chinese market is a longshot to solve America’s invasive carp problem.

“These guys, I hear all kinds of things about investors, they’re going to have all these multi-million dollar deals with China…and they don’t materialize I’m telling you.”

Steve McNitt is the Sales Manager for Schafer Fish in Northwest Illinois.  He says they’ve shipped millions of pounds of carp to China, but the margins are just too slim.

“I bet we’ve had 30 or 40 Chinese customers come through here and they’re going to buy every fish we can produce and everything…and they would if you give them to ‘em, but they’re not going to allow you to make any money.”

Fishermen are paid about 15 cents a pound for Asian carp, and many ecologists warn that building an industry based on an invasive species might only further establish the carp in American rivers.

But Ben Allen of American Heartland fish says he expects to not only control the population of carp, but ultimately beat it back.

“We want to move these fish out of the river.  And we’re going to attract people that have large boats and want to go out and work hard and bring in a lot of weight.”

In addition to selling the carp as food, Allen says new rendering patents will also allow his company to tap into the booming markets for fishmeal, used in animal feed and Omega-3 fish oil.

For the Environment Report, I’m Adam Allington.

What if Asian Carp Make a Home Here? (Part 4)

  • Silver carp (top) and bighead carp (bottom) are easy to confuse. (Photo courtesy of Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee)

Some places in the Great Lakes might be better for Asian carp than others…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Let’s take a second and play a game.

When I say “Asian carp” what’s the very first thing you think of?

Maybe… it’s this:

“They’re jumpin’ pretty good, look at that!  Ohhh that one may have hurt… Ohhh!”

Those are silver carp.  They’re the jumpers.  And if there are a lot of them packed in shoulder to shoulder in a river channel… it can be dangerous.

Duane Chapman is a leading carp expert. He’s with the U.S. Geological Survey in Missouri. 

“They’ve hurt a lot of people – I’ve been hurt by them – I’ve seen a couple of broken jaws, people have been knocked off boats.”

Asian carp were imported to the U.S. in the 1970’s and used in research ponds and fish farms.  At some point, they escaped, and they’ve been making their way up the Mississippi River system ever since.

The question that’s on a lot of people’s minds now, is what will happen if Asian carp get established in the Great Lakes. 

John Dettmers is a senior fishery biologist with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.  He’s also one of the authors of a new peer-reviewed risk assessment.

“The risk of Asian carp establishing themselves and having measureable consequences to Great Lakes fish and aquatic communities is pretty high especially in Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie.  A little bit less of a risk in Lake Ontario and a bit less risk than that in Lake Superior.”

Scientists are the most concerned about bighead and silver carp.  Both species eat plankton.  Those are tiny plants and animals at the base of the food chain that a lot of other things like to eat.

Duane Chapman with the USGS also worked on the risk assessment.  He says between 1995 and 2000, three bighead carp were caught in Lake Erie.

“Those fish were extremely robust. They were very fat.”

Biologists think those three carp were put in the lake intentionally… and Chapman says there’s no evidence yet that there’s a reproducing population in Lake Erie.

But he says Lake Erie would be very well suited for carp, and especially the western part of the lake because there’s a lot of plankton there.

“That would be better habitat than just about any place in the Great Lakes for Asian carp growth.  It also tends to be habitat for important fishes like walleye and yellow perch. That’s a little bit scary.”

He says there could also be some negative impacts on salmon at certain stages of their lives.

Other fish experts have questioned how well carp would do in the Great Lakes.

Gerald Smith is a professor emeritus in the Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan.  He was not involved in the new risk assessment.  He says he agrees with the report overall… but:

“I think they left out the importance of predators.  All carp start out as eggs, juveniles or larvae. They have to grow up through a food chain that includes more large predators than Asian carp face anywhere else in the world.”

He says it’s uncertain how well little carp would do against those predators.

Duane Chapman says baby Asian carp might be able to escape a lot of those predators. He says there are many shallow wetlands in the Great Lakes region where baby carp could hide.

All of the scientists made a point of saying that we should keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.  And Duane Chapman says… even if a few carp do turn up down the line… it’s not time to give up.

“I want to make it real clear that there’s a sense you get a couple of fish, a male and a female, and it’s game over. That’s absolutely not the case.”

He says typically in a big system like the Great Lakes, it takes a large number of fish to establish a reproducing population. So he says it makes sense to try to keep the numbers of carp in the Lakes low.

Special thanks to Long Haul Productions for their jumping carp audio.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Our series wraps up tomorrow with a look at people who are trying to make some money by selling carp. 

Other Pathways for Asian Carp (Part 3)

  • The 8 foot tall fence at Eagle Marsh is intended to keep adult Asian carp from swimming toward Lake Erie during floods. (Photo by Mercedes Mejia/Michigan Radio)

Today, we continue our week-long series on Asian carp and the Great Lakes.

Most of the efforts to keep bighead and silver carp out of the Great Lakes are focused on the shipping canals in the Chicago area.  But there are other ways the carp could get into the Great Lakes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking at more than a dozen other possible watery routes carp could take.

A couple weeks ago, I went to see the site that many scientists consider the 2nd highest risk pathway for carp.  It’s a sleepy little place called Eagle Marsh.  It’s more than 700 acres and it’s bone dry right now, with not a carp in sight.

So it’s a little strange when you first see the 8 foot tall chain-link fence. It stretches from one side of Eagle Marsh to the other.

“This fence is designed to stop Asian carp but as you can see when you pan around and look at the rest of this fence the fence is built on dry ground.”

Doug Keller is with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

“This is an area that floods when the Wabash and Maumee systems, they can flood together, and this is the area they flood together and this is the potential pathway that Asian carp can move from the Wabash River up toward the Maumee River.”

Keller says there are bighead carp about 20 river miles away from this marsh in the Wabash River.  The concern is – if carp get into the Maumee River, they could swim right to Lake Erie.  

“There have been many people that have assessed the risk of Asian carp getting into the Great Lakes system, and certainly should they get into Lake Erie almost any expert would agree that’s probably the place in the Great Lakes they would do the best.”

This fence is a temporary barrier. It was built to block adult carp from getting through… but not baby carp. 

“Any fish that’s probably six inches or less, of any kind of fish, is going to be able to slide right through this fence, but the juvenile Asian carp live in backwater areas.  So they’re going to hatch and go off into those backwater areas in the middle and lower Wabash River and they’re going to be 100 miles, easy, from here.”

Keller says even if Asian carp laid eggs in the upper Wabash River… those eggs would get sent on a 60 mile drift downstream, far from this spot in Eagle Marsh.

So far, the fence has lived up to at least one big test. 

Betsy Yankowiak is the Director of Preserves and Programs at the Little River Wetlands Project. Her group is one of the owners of Eagle Marsh, and they have a contract to inspect and maintain the carp fence.  She says a year ago in May there was so much rain, she had to take a canoe out to the fence.

“When we got out there, these common carp were swimming on both sides of the fence and I got out of the canoe, and I have my big knee-high boots on but still, common carp mouths… and they were floating around by my feet and I was like oh, man.”

Common carp have been in the U.S. since the late 1800’s… so they’re not the kind of carp they’re trying to stop here.

But Yankowiak says she’s keeping an eye on the carp fence… just in case any bighead or silver carp make a run for it in the future.

“If Asian carp cross, it’s on me. So I want to make sure we’re doing the best job we possibly can.”

But even if the carp fence works… or the carp never get close to Eagle Marsh… biologists say there are other ways carp could get into the Great Lakes.

People still move live Asian carp around the region even though it’s illegal. It’s possible those fish could get into the Lakes.

And… experts say baby Asian carp look a lot like bait fish called gizzard shad… so fishermen could release them accidentally.

Our series continues tomorrow with a look at what might happen if carp get comfortable in the Great Lakes. 

Industries Worry About Basin Separation (Part 2)

  • A sightseeing boat on Lake Michigan near Chicago. Barge and tour boat operators, among other businesses and industries, are concerned about proposals to permanently separate the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River system. (Photo by Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio)

The issue of keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes has implications for a variety of industries.  Midwest officials are weighing a range of options, including severing the connection between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes basins.  In the second part of our series on Asian carp, Adam Allington examines the potential economic implications for keeping the carp out of the lakes now, and in the future:

It’s a scorching hot day in East St. Louis, Illinois.  Down by the Mississippi River a tugboat is pushing a flotilla of six light green barges. This 70-mile stretch of river is one of the busiest inland ports in America—a place where grain, aggregate and steel are loaded and shipped up and down the river.

“We operate about 200 barges in all parts of the inland waterways, anything that’s connected to the Mississippi.”

Mark Fletcher runs Ceres Barge Lines.  At any point roughly a quarter of his business is tied up moving freight in and around the Chicago area.  As far as he’s concerned, any carp mitigation strategy that closes or slows shipping on the Chicago canals would be a disaster for his business.

“It would affect us terrifically and it affects the whole industry terrifically because you’ve got so much tonnage that does move up the Illinois River trying to get into the steel mills of Burns Harbor, Indiana, Indiana Harbor, south of Chicago.”

In addition to impacts on manufacturing and shipping, Fletcher says one barge can hold the equivalent of 60 semi-trucks or 40 rail cars.

Mark Biel is the Director of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois.  He says closing the Chicago canals would add roughly a half million more trucks to roads and freeways, posing a real threat to the environment.

“Particularly when it comes to some of the petroleum products and chemical products, the safest way to move those products is to move them by barge.  In many cases you don’t want to put them on rail cars or put them on trucks and then move them through neighborhoods.  The preferable way to move this product safely is to move it through the barge.”

But severing the physical connection of the Great Lakes to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers isn’t necessarily an “either-or” scenario for industry.

Tim Eder is the Director of the Great Lakes Commission.  The best solution, he says, would make it impossible for Asian carp to move upriver but would also provide a workaround for cargo.

“It would be a physical structure in the water, it would be a land bridge made out of concrete and earth.  It would include a terminal, where barge traffic would meet on either side of the barrier.  There could be superfast unloading elevators and cranes that moved goods from one side of the barrier to the other.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is set to deliver a progress report to Congress in mid-October, including a ballpark cost for basin separation.

Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow says anything less than basin separation is a non-starter, but she’s also confident that a workable solution in within reach.

“We have, in fact, a $7 billion fishing industry and a $16 billion boating industry in the Great Lakes.  But we know that there are other important commercial interests and we need to make sure we find a solution that works for both.”

Still, no matter what the Army Corps recommends, some say the issue of carp getting into the lakes may ultimately have nothing to do with infrastructure.

Michael Borgstrom is the President of Wendella Sightseeing, which has had boats on the Chicago River for over 75 years.

“I just don’t know where the urgency is.  I mean, they’re all over the country so… there’s other ways for them to get into the lakes as well.”

Borgstrom thinks the true threat of carp getting into the lakes won’t hinge on barriers, but rather the very real possibility of humans simply taking live carp and dropping it in the lake.

For the Environment Report, I’m Adam Allington.

Tomorrow, we’ll hear about ways carp could get into the Great Lakes besides the Chicago shipping canals. 

Asian Carp & the Great Lakes: Separating the Basins (Part 1)

  • The way things were, circa 1900 (before the construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal). (Image courtesy of the Great Lakes Commission)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Earlier this spring… the Obama administration ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to speed up a five-year study of options to block invasive Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes.  Many biologists say the best solution would be complete separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River watershed.  But as Adam Allington reports in the first story of our five-part series, basin separation comes with its own multi-billion dollar price tag… and it would require re-plumbing the entire City of Chicago:

This story begins with a nice round number, and that number is 1900… the year the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was complete. 

Back then, the canal’s opening was touted as one of the biggest civil engineering feats of the industrial age—significant, for completely reversing the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan and taking all the sewage from the city of Chicago with it.

Over 100 years later, that canal is still doing the same job.

“On any given day, depending on the time of year, approximately 60-80 percent of the volume of the Chicago River is treated municipal wastewater.”

Dave Wethington is a Project Manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  He’s charged with completing the Corps recommendations to Congress for keeping Asian carp out of the lakes now, and in the future.

“The Corps believes we have the issue of Asian carp dealt with appropriately at this point in time.  It’s a very complex challenge that we’re looking at because of the multiple uses of that system.” 

In addition to storm and wastewater, Wethington says the canals are also important shipping routes moving freight in and out of Chicago and the Great Lakes. 

He says an electric barrier located 30 miles downstream is keeping the carp out of the Chicago canals, and breeding populations haven’t been detected within 100 miles.

Still, samples taken this summer on Lake Calumet, a mere 6 miles from Lake Michigan, did test positive for Asian carp DNA.

“It’s a warning sign that Asian carp are present in the system.”

Tim Eder is the Director of the Great Lakes Commission, based in Ann Arbor.  He says the tests are proof the electric barrier isn’t working.

“Whether they’re a live fish present on the wrong side of the barrier now, or whether they will be at some point in the future, I think it’s a warning sign that we’ve got to take this very seriously and move with the utmost haste.”

Eder says best solution for keeping carp out of the lakes is complete hydrologic separation of the Mississippi and Great Lakes basins. 

But doing that won’t come cheap, with some estimates running as high as $4 billion.   John Goss is the so-called “Asian Carp Czar” appointed by the White House to coordinate the federal response to the carp threat.

“In the current budget situation, with the federal government, the State of Illinois and the other states don’t have a lot of funding to contribute.  So certainly, if hydrologic separation is the only solution, then that requires finding the funding.”

BRAMMEIER: “Talking in billions for major infrastructure projects that impact the lives of tens of millions of people is not out of the ordinary.” 

Joel Brammeier is the President of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.  He says protecting the multi-billion dollar Great Lakes fishing and tourism industry is too important to risk on half-measures, which themselves cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

“Whether the carp are 100, 50, 20 miles from Lake Michigan, the right solution is the same, and that’s separating these two systems.  So we don’t have to worry about this anymore and so we don’t have to keep dumping millions of dollars into temporary fixes that aren’t going to solve the problem.” 

The Army Corps is not set to deliver its list of options to Congress until the end of next year. Yet to be determined is how a permanent barrier would impact shipping and water treatment, and who would pay for it.

For the Environment Report, I’m Adam Allington.

Tomorrow, we’ll hear what concerns industry groups have about separating the basins.

Unlocking the Secrets in Our Cells (Part 5)

  • Dr. Madhuri Kakarala looking at stem cells from human breast tissue. Women voluntarily donate their tissue after various breast surgeries for research. (Photo by Mark Brush/Michigan Radio)

There have been breakthroughs in treating cancer, but what about preventing it in the first place?

In 1970, the nation launched a “War on Cancer.” The goal was to cure it in 25 years, but back then, researchers didn’t know what we know now. That cancer is a disease of our genes… “a distorted version of our normal selves” as Nobel Prize winner Dr. Harold Varmus said.

In the final part of our week-long series, I visited some researchers at the University of Michigan's Comprehensive Cancer Center who are looking deep into our cells for answers.


When I visited Dr. Madhuri Kakarala, she had me peek through a microscope in her lab.

“Just describe for me what you see here, and I’ll tell you what it is,” said Kakarala.

The last time I peered through a microscope was in a high school biology class. Those images were typically a hazy outline of something… maybe green… and with a hair in it.

But what I was seeing here was crystal clear. Tiny white spots on a gray background, and several spots had clumped together in the center.

“That looks kind of like a circular ball, right? A three dimensional sphere. That is a mammosphere,” said Kakarala.

I’m looking at stem cells from human breast tissue donated by women who have undergone some type of breast surgery.

They’re analyzing these cells to see how they react to a chemical many of us are exposed to – bisphenol A, or BPA.

BPA is used in plastic food containers, water bottles, and the linings of metal food cans. It’s even on money and some paper receipts.

Scientists at the National Toxicology Program at the Department of Health and Human Services say this about BPA:

In the case of BPA, the NTP and our expert panel expressed “some concern” for potential exposures to the fetus, infants and children. There are insufficient data from studies in humans to reach a conclusion on reproductive or developmental hazards presented by current exposures to bisphenol A, but there is limited evidence of developmental changes occurring in some animal studies at doses that are experienced by humans. It is uncertain if similar changes would occur in humans, but the possibility of adverse health effects cannot be dismissed.

It’s “uncertain,” so the researchers in this lab are gathering more data.

They want to know how this estrogenic compound affects breast cells. Kakarala says BPA can promote progenitor cell growth, and they want to know if it promotes the growth of some kinds of breast cancers.

This is just one experiment in this lab. It’s one puzzle they’re working on.

They’re also looking at how some spices, like turmeric and pepper, might keep cells from turning cancerous – how some foods and anti-inflammatory drugs might also help.

“What we are trying to do is look at those individuals that we know have an increased risk of developing cancer, and intervene with those people before they already have cancer,” said Kakarala.

Much of the research they do here falls under the umbrella term of cancer prevention research.

Cancer prevention can be cell biology research like this, or developing vaccines, or it can mean educating the public about the things that can reduce cancer risk – things like maintaining a healthy weight, reducing emotional stress, eating the right foods, and exercising (the Mayo Clinic lists 7 tips for  reducing your cancer risk).

Some cancer rates are rising, but if you look at all cancers combined the overall rates have been ticking downward since 2001.

More people have quit smoking, and that’s led to a drop in lung cancer rates.

More people are getting screened, and that’s led to a drop in colon cancer rates.

Dr. Dean Brenner heads up the lab where Dr. Kakarala works. He said the lesson is that cancer prevention works.

“That’s why it’s so important to think of dealing with cancer as a process that starts long before one sees the bad endpoint, which is the disease that everybody calls cancer and treats with chemotherapy, but rather that the whole process that we intervene early than that because we already know that when you intervene early, we see a reduction in mortality,” said Brenner.

The complex puzzle remains. Can researchers find the things that increase our cancer risk?

There are around 80,000 chemicals in our lives today. Only a fraction of them have been well studied.

Many health professionals say more needs to be done.

But all this research takes money, and today more money is spent on treating the disease than preventing it.

The National Cancer Institute is the biggest funder of research in the U.S. The government agency has an annual budget of more than $5 billion.

When we looked at the programs aimed at prevention, around 13 percent of their 2011 budget went toward this kind of research.

In an e-mail, an NCI official told us they spent closer to 27 percent of the 2011 budget on prevention. And they said much of the research they fund focuses on basic cell biology, which can lead to breakthroughs in treatment and prevention.

Dr. Kakarala said no matter what her funding situation, she’ll keep looking for answers.

In her first year of medical school she was diagnosed with an advanced thyroid cancer.

She said living through that experience has helped her. And it helps today when she’s in the lab or with her patients.

“It makes me really understand the suffering that they’re going through, because I’ve been in that bed.  And in the lab, it’s a huge motivator. You may or may not get your next grant, but I’m not giving up on this, because this is a mission. It’s not just a career.”

Dr. Kakarala said she feels like her experience drives her to solve these complex genetic puzzles – to learn ways to keep our cells from mutating out of control.

Suing Over Cancer (Part 4)

  • Kathy Henry's property was contaminated by Dow Chemical with a chemical called dioxin. The EPA says it's likely to cause cancer. (Photo by Kathy Henry)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

As part of our week-long series on cancer and the environment… we’re talking about going to court. Some people turn to the courts because they think pollution has made them sick, and they think they know who’s to blame. But, the courts aren’t always the best place to turn with these kinds of cases. Sarah Alvarez explains:

Kathy Henry lived along a river in the Midland area that Dow Chemical contaminated with a chemical called dioxin. The EPA says dioxin is likely to cause cancer. Henry’s property had high levels of the chemical. So she and a group of other people sued Dow. She was more than a little nervous that first day in court.

“I was a little overwhelmed, just really Interested in watching the proceedings.”

But what does she feel like now?

”We’re just frustrated to the point where I have no respect for the process anymore.”

Henry’s frustrated because her case started nine years ago. Their case isn’t over yet, but it’s not looking good for them.

“We just wanted the courts to force Dow to basically buy our house so we could leave. And we couldn’t afford to just pack up and leave on our own.”

Henry’s group has not been successful in getting Dow to pay for any moves, or for medical monitoring to look out for future health problems.

Let’s just say here that these cases aren’t easy for the companies being sued either. They take up a lot of time and resources.

Sara Gosman teaches toxic torts classes at the University of Michigan Law School. She says Kathy Henry’s experience is not uncommon.

“A toxic tort is a lawsuit for personal injury. These cases are complex, they’re difficult to prove, they’re very expensive.”

Let’s say, for example, there’s a case where people say a company released a chemical into their water-and now some of them have cancer. Sara Gosman says it’s going to get complicated right away.

“I think a lot of the difficulty comes from the lack of scientific knowledge about how people get cancer.”

And there’s one other thing.

“And since cancers don’t typically show up until 20 to 30 years after the exposure, you have to reconstruct after a great length of time what actually happened. That is the big issue around toxic torts.”

Sometimes the system works for plaintiffs. When it does they can win a lot of money and really change how companies act. But that doesn’t happen often. Sara Gosman says maybe the courts aren’t the best place for these kinds of fights, but that people keep ending up there anyway. Why? Because the laws that should protect people from toxic substances in the first place-and keep them out of court-are weak.

“Right now, the federal law governing these substances, the main federal law governing it which is called the toxic substances control act, TSCA, is widely seen as a failure. It doesn’t actually protect people’s health.”

In fact, that law… it’s basically been locked in a drawer. Gosman says the EPA hasn’t even tried to use it to regulate any toxic substances-at all-in over 20 years.

So what are people supposed to do? Well, there are alternatives to the court system. Like the 9-11 Health Compensation Act. People who got certain diseases from dust after the twin towers collapsed got some money automatically to pay for certain health problems. But that’s not happening on a wide scale. Until there are more alternatives people will still turn to the courts if they think the environment is making them sick.

And what advice does Kathy Henry, the woman who is suing Dow right now, have for those people?

“So all you can do is try. I wish them luck.”

For the Environment Report, I’m Sarah Alvarez.

Tomorrow, in the final part of our series, we take a look at cancer prevention research and what we know about avoiding cancer before it starts.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Investigating Rare Childhood Cancer Cluster (Part 3)

  • Danielle Williams with her daughter Erika. Williams suspects something in the water or air is making kids sick. Health officials say at the moment, there's no clear connection. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Williams)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

This week, we’re bringing you a series of stories on cancer and the environment.

Today, in the third part of our series, we’re going to St. Clair County.

The state of Michigan has confirmed a cancer cluster in the county. Since 2007, eight young children – and a possible ninth – have been diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer called Wilms tumor.

Health officials ran a statistical analysis and found there are more cases of Wilms tumor in kids in the county than you’d expect to find.

Danielle Williams’ (no relation to Rebecca Williams) daughter Erika was the first to be diagnosed. She was seven years old.

“My daughter was playing soccer and she came home that night and we noticed she had a protruding lump on the side of her belly, and to the touch it was hot.”

An ultrasound revealed what looked like a six inch mass in Erika’s kidney. Erika had surgery to remove her left kidney … and that’s when the doctors discovered the tumor was the size of a football.

“In the hospital, she quit… she didn’t speak. She didn’t really know what was going on but she knew it was serious. Because they’re so little they don’t know the serious(ness) of it, but her seeing me so broken, she just sat there in silence all the time and didn’t talk.”

Williams says after Erika’s surgery, she went through radiation and a year of chemotherapy. Erika is in remission now. Officials with the Centers for Disease Control say more than 90 percent of kids diagnosed with Wilms tumor survive.

A few months after Erika’s diagnosis, another child in the county was diagnosed with Wilms tumor. And then more kids got sick. The youngest was a 6 month old baby girl.

“If children are getting cancer, you know there’s something wrong. There’s something wrong.”

Williams lives in Marine City, on the St. Clair River. It’s downstream from Sarnia, Ontario. That area is nicknamed Chemical Valley because of the complex of petrochemical plants on the river. There have been hundreds of spills in the past two decades. Several cities – including Marine City – pull their drinking water from the river.

Danielle Williams suspects something in the water or the air is making the kids sick.

But health officials say right now… there is no clear connection between any environmental factor and Wilms tumor.

Tom Sinks is with the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. He says it’s believed Wilms tumor could stem from something that happens before a baby is born.

“So if you translate that into doing an epidemiologic study you have to try to recreate what environmental exposures or what the conditions may have been for the mother during pregnancy or possibly before pregnancy .”

The St. Clair County Health Department has been following the Wilms cases for a few years.

Dr. Annette Mercatante is the medical health officer with the health department. She says they’re developing detailed survey questions for the families in the cancer cluster.

“Where did they live? What did they eat? Their medical history, their work exposure history, we’re just going to try and be very comprehensive.”

They’re also going to try to track down the placentas of the children. Hospitals often save placentas when babies are born. There’s a research team at the University of Michigan that’s hoping to study the placental tissue to see if they can find any clues about the Wilms tumor cluster.

Dr. Mercatante says it will be difficult to figure out why these kids are getting sick.

“I need to be honest. And the honest answer is we don’t know and we very well may not know for a long time to come, if ever. Especially in something as rare as this.”

But she says this cluster of children with cancer deserves a very close look.

Our series on cancer and environment continues tomorrow. We’ll hear the story of some people who turn to the courts when they think pollution could make them sick.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Mapping Cancer Cases in a Small Town (Part 2)

  • Claire Schlaff and her daughter-in-law Polly were motivated by the loss of their son and husband, Doug, to start a cancer mapping project. They're trying to piece together information about cancer cases in White Lake, a resort community in West Michigan. (Photo by Sarah Alvarez)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

All this week we’re bringing you a special series on cancer and the environment.

Sometimes a whole community can be affected by cancer. In the second part of our series, Sarah Alvarez visits one town in west Michigan where families are trying to find out why their loved ones got sick:

Cancer is a scary enough word, and cancer cluster can sound even scarier. That term describes a place where more people have cancer than you’d expect to find in the rest of the population. But finding out if a cluster really exists and then getting something done about it is hard, really hard.

Claire Schlaff doesn’t know if there’s a cancer cluster in her small resort community around White Lake, Michigan. She says she just wanted to know more about what might have caused her son, Doug to get cancer and die three years ago.

“He went to two major medical facilities and was even in a clinical trial. They were focused on treatment. They weren’t about doing research into what causes Ewing’s Sarcoma.”

Claire’s daughter-in-law Polly was also looking for answers to what had caused the disease. She’s Doug’s widow and the mother of his three boys.

“He was diagnosed when he was 33 and he passed away when he was 35. We were high school sweethearts. He was a high school counselor; he was a high school basketball coach. He was an athlete.”

Polly started a Facebook group called Cancer in White Lake to gather stories of people around the lake affected by cancer. She and Claire had a hunch there was more cancer around White Lake than in other places. They collected more than a hundred stories from people with lots of different cancers. Claire and Polly thought it might have something to do with past pollution. This is Claire again:

“In 1985 we were listed as one of the great lakes area of concern because of contamination from Hooker chemical, the tannery, DuPont and maybe some others.”

White Lake has been cleaned up. It’s expected to come off the list of polluted places this year. The local health department doesn’t have any data to show there’s more cancer around White Lake than anyplace else.

Claire and Polly and some dedicated volunteers want to get the health department more data. The state keeps track of cancer rates by county, but not by town. And there are lots of types of cancers they don’t keep track of.

So Claire and Polly turned their Facebook group into something else.

“It’s a voluntary, self-reporting mapping project.”

They’re trying to map all the people in their community who’ve had cancer in hope of getting their health department interested in looking into this. They’re finding, then calling and surveying about 1000 people.

Terry Nordbrock runs the nonprofit National Disease Cluster Alliance. She says regular people are not usually successful in discovering a cancer cluster.

“There’s hundreds and hundreds of times where people have a concern-they’re observing harmful effects in their community and they can’t get anyone to listen to them. So that is actually the more common outcome: massive frustration for all involved.”

Terry Nordbrock says cancer clusters just don’t get enough attention from the government. She says that’s why people like Claire and Polly Schlaff often have to do the work themselves if they want to see it done.

“Communities deserve to have confidence that their concerns will be adequately addressed. We’re not there yet.”

Claire Schlaff says she doesn’t expect answers about what caused her son’s cancer.

“I don’t think we’ll ever figure out what caused Doug’s cancer. I feel like we might figure out why somebody got cancer.”

They do hope their work is useful and can provide answers for somebody, some day.

For the Environment Report, I’m Sarah Alvarez.

Our cancer and environment series continues tomorrow. We’ll hear about a confirmed cancer cluster in St. Clair County, where a number of young children have been diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Our Murky Understanding of Cancer and Chemicals (Part 1)

  • Corinna Borden was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma six years ago. She wrote a book about her experience - "I Dreamt of Sausage." (Photo courtesy of Corinna Borden)

According to the latest numbers from the National Cancer Institute, roughly 41 percent of us will be diagnosed with some type of cancer in our lifetimes.

But “cancer” is not just one type of disease.

There are more than 100 different kinds with different personalities and causes. And the causes are not all that well understood.

This week, we’re taking a closer look at cancer and environmental pollutants.

It’s a subject researchers are trying to learn more about, but the picture of how the chemicals in our everyday lives interact with our bodies’ cells is far from clear.


What it's like to hear the word "cancer"

Six years ago, Corinna Borden woke up in the middle of the night with a shooting pain under her right rib cage. It was the kind of pain that made her want to crawl out of her skin.

Months went by and the pain got worse. Doctors were stumped.

She was taking two Vicodin pills every four hours for relief. The medical tests continued, and they eventually found the problem.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma – cancer.

She was 29 years old when she got the news.

“I basically shut down,” said Borden. “Like I was totally blown apart and terrified, and I couldn’t think of anything but that I was going to die and that this was really unfair. And then there was a small part of me that was happy that the pain was not totally in my head, and hadn’t been… And then [I was] angry that nobody had found it. So there was a lot going on. There’s that great line with Paul Simon, ‘when you lose love, it’s like everyone can see into your heart.’ It’s the same feeling, you've just been stripped…. every boundary you have is just laid open. It’s a really emotionally horrible feeling. ”

Doctors reassured Borden that Hodgkin’s lymphoma is treatable, and a week later, she started chemotherapy.

But after months of treatment, it didn’t work. Her scans still showed a spot where cancer might be lurking.

“To be honest my anger with the western establishment of not having the chemotherapy help me was also coupled with the anger [that] I’ve been poisoned by whatever that’s been going on… I mean I have no idea what it is I’ve been actually eating, or drinking, or every cosmetic, they don’t have list all of the ingredients or the 'natural flavors' – that is an umbrella that can mean anything,” said Borden.

How could this have happened?

It’s a common question after being diagnosed. People ask, “How could this have happened to me – or to my sister, my uncle, my mom, my neighbor?”

There are many factors that can lead to cancer. There are the genes we have inherited. There are viruses. There are naturally occurring things like sun exposure, arsenic in water, and radon.

All these factors can interplay with our genes and cause the cells in our body to grow out of control.

And then there are the man-made chemicals in our lives. How these impact cancer can be tough to figure out.

The National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publishes a list of substances that could cause cancer “to which a significant number of persons residing in the United States are exposed.”

The list is published every two years, and the most recent edition lists 240 substances that can lead to cancer.

  • 54 of these substances are listed as “known to be human carcinogens,”
  • and 186 substances are listed as “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.”

The President's Cancer Panel calls for more action

Each year a panel of scientists appointed by the President takes stock of the nation’s strategy to fight cancer.

In 2010, a panel appointed by former President George W. Bush issued a report that said quote – “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”

Chair of the President’s Cancer Panel Dr. LeSalle Leffall said that only a fraction of the 80,000 chemicals in use today are tested for safety.

“The health effects of many of these chemicals have not been studied or they’ve been understudied and the chemicals really remain unregulated,” said Leffall.

Leffall said the panel recommended more research and more action.

“We think that the government needs to take action to eliminate carcinogens from our workplaces, our schools, and our homes, and that action needs to start now,” said Leffall.

The President’s Cancer Panel report, “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk,” talked about reducing exposure to things such as toxic substances in drinking water, pesticides, medical x-rays, car exhaust, and plastic food containers.

It was criticized by the American Cancer Society. They say only about 6% of cancer deaths are caused by occupational exposure and environmental pollutants.

From the ACS’ report “Cancer Facts & Figures 2012”:

Exposure to carcinogenic agents in occupational, community, and other settings is thought to account for a relatively small percentage of cancer deaths – about 4% from occupational exposures and 2% from environmental pollutants (man-made and naturally occurring).

They said the President’s Cancer Panel report put too much emphasis on these potential environmental risks to the detriment of other known risks – bigger risks – things like smoking, diet, and lack of exercise.

How can we know?

Dr. Richard Clapp is an environmental epidemiologist at Boston University.

He said the 6% number is outdated.

“This is a thirty-year old estimate. I think it was wrong 30 years ago and it’s wrong now. I don’t know what the real percentage is. I don’t think anyone knows what the real percentage is because things interact,” said Clapp.

He said right now, we simply don’t know enough.

“It’s not like environmental or occupational exposures cause 70% or 80%, we don’t know that,” said Clapp. “Anyone that claims they know that is making it up. There’s no way to prove that. But we do know that there are people getting exposed to stuff that causes cancer; why would we want to have that continue?”

Clapp says if there’s a chemical that looks like it might be linked to cancer, it’s wise to get rid of it.

He points to the falling rates of lung cancer as evidence of how we should approach the problem.

“It’s good news that lung cancer, especially in males, has begun to come down, and probably is beginning to come down in females. So that’s a story that needs repeating…  We don’t exactly know  the mechanism, we don’t know exactly what happens to an individual cell, from even whether it’s benzo[a]pyrene in the cigarette smoke, or something else in it, there’s lots of carcinogens in cigarette smoke. So we don’t know the exact details of how that works. But we know if we prevent that exposure it’s going to have a benefit for people’s health.”

Moving from a "reactionary principle" to a "precautionary principle"

Clapp said the U.S. should move toward the European model of chemical regulation. The REACH program (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemical substances) was adopted in Europe in 2007. It “places greater responsibility on industry to manage the risks from chemicals and to provide safety information on the substances.”

A similar, precautionary approach to chemical regulation has been introduced in the U.S. Congress.

The Safe Chemicals Act (S.847) was introduced by Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), and hearings on the bill were held last November.

And the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is working on a new carcinogens policy expected later this year that could move toward a more precautionary approach to chemical regulation in the workplace.

Making changes, but trying not to be consumed by them

Corinna Borden doesn’t know what caused her cancer, but she has changed her life.

Soon after her diagnosis, she got rid of the chemicals in her house, she began filtering her tap water, and she changed what she eats.

But she tries not to be consumed by these choices. She say she still has to live.

“I’ve been in a position where I didn’t want to get out of bed, because I was so afraid of dying,” said Borden.  “And that’s not how we should live. Life is precious and beautiful and I really feel that you need to go out and experience it.  And going out and being a little closer to the edge is… what choice do we have?”

It’s been almost six years since Borden first heard the word cancer, and she doesn’t know yet if her cancer is in remission. (Borden keeps a blog about her experiences and life lessons, and she's also written a book, "I Dreamt of Sausage.")

For those who get the disease these days – fewer are dying from it because of advances in treatment and screening.

But researchers continue to work on one of the biggest puzzles – what makes our cells turn cancerous in the first place?

Tomorrow, as part of our week-long series on cancer and the environment, Sarah Alvarez will take us to White Lake, Michigan. Some families there are trying to figure out where cancer in their community might come from.